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The paths (and downfalls) of Tiger, M.J. and Skipper

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It was a sight to behold. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, the greatest athletes to ever play their respective sports and two of the planet's most famous people, strolling side by side, sharing laughs amidst the picturesque backdrop of a pristine golf course. This was the first time the good friends had ever been paired together in a golf tournament, and it was happening in Charlotte.

Who knew there could be a stage large enough, but it was the Quail Hollow Club in south Charlotte and this was the Wednesday Pro-Am during the 2007 Wachovia Championship. As it had done each year, the Pro-Am groups a professional golfer with two amateurs in an exhibition before the official four-day PGA tournament starts. In this trio, Woods was the pro golfer, obviously, and Jordan was one of the amateurs (in golf terms). The second amateur was Charlotte businessman William "Skipper" Beck.

That was three years ago; a lot, obviously, has changed since then.

On the eve of this month's Quail Hollow Championship (which itself is the result of a tournament name change last year after Wachovia was acquired by Wells Fargo), the images we once had of Tiger, M.J., and Skipper -- whether it be of them on the putting greens together that day or how we viewed them individually -- have changed in a way that John Grisham couldn't have depicted.

Tiger's Tales

He went from his name, Tiger Woods, being synonymous with perfection, discipline and triumph to post-Nov. 27 and him being parodied as "Tiger's Wood," the man who's had more mistresses in four years than probably the rest of the PGA Tour's leaderboard combined. You all know the story of how Woods' world was turned upside down when he crashed his SUV in front of his home in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving; that led to months of previously unknown women telling their stories of how they'd had ongoing affairs with the married golfer.

And even as new women continue to surface and more racy Woods-sent text messages make it onto the Internet, the face of the PGA and Nike Golf has returned to the sport. After a fourth-place finish in the coveted Masters tournament, Woods' first competitive event in nearly five months, golf fans (and TMZ followers) everywhere want to know what other tournaments he will play in -- most of which will not be as tightly controlled (nor perhaps as friendly) as Augusta National Golf Club.

The day after the Masters ended, Woods submitted his entry to play in June's U.S. Open. Many golf analysts have opined that Woods won't miss any of this year's four major championships: the Masters in April, U.S. Open in June, the Open Championship in July, and the PGA Championship in August. But what is less certain is what tournaments he will play in between those four events.

On April 15, Woods stunned many sports writers -- and appeased many Charlotteans -- when he announced that his next tournament will be the Quail Hollow Championship, taking place April 26 through May 2. It's not so much a surprise that he's playing here. Since 2004, the only two years he hasn't played was in 2006 when his father Earl Woods was gravely ill and actually died the week of the tournament, and in 2008 when he took a break from golf after having surgery on his left knee. In the four years he's played here, he has three top-five finishes including winning the tournament in 2007.

But what was surprising was that he made the announcement in a very un-Tiger-like manner: several days in advance.

All eligible PGA Tour players have until the Friday before the tournament (this year, April 23) at 5 p.m. to officially commit to the Quail Hollow Championship. As the world's No. 1 ranked golfer, he's notorious for his last-minute entry into tournaments.

Shortly after returning from attending the Masters, Kym Hougham, executive director of the Quail Hollow Championship, thought Woods' decision would still be days away. "Historically, he plays our event. And historically, we don't know until the last minute. And I'm not sure that's going to change this year."

But it did change, and perhaps this is a sign of the changed man Woods has vowed to become. He joins an already impressive list of golfers who have committed to play at Quail Hollow, including Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Lee Westwood, and Charlotte native Davis Love III in what will be a field of more than 150 competing.

"This tournament has never been about Tiger. I mean, Tiger is a participant, but [we also] get one of the strongest fields in golf," Hougham said. "So we have to do a lot of things anyway, just out of respect for the other players. We have to be prepared with the security, and all of the plans have to be in place. This year might be a little bit different, but I think Augusta is going to soften things a little bit, in that we won't be his first one out ... But we'll be the first tournament that people will be able to buy tickets for."

Even though he now comes with baggage a million times heavier than the one carrying his golf clubs, organizers at every PGA tournament around the country want Woods to play in their event. Tickets for the Quail Hollow Championship sold out each year from 2003 to 2008, usually weeks before the start of the tournament. Last year, during an increasing economic recession, ticket sales were off par. When Woods announced that he would be playing here, an additional 1,500 tickets were sold during those final few days.

And then there's the effect of Tiger TV. When he isn't teeing off, TV ratings for PGA tournaments, on average, are down nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, largely because of the new heightened interest in Woods by non-golf fans, the Masters tournament that Woods played in earlier this month drew a 43-percent ratings increase for first-round coverage on ESPN, and a 36-percent gain for Sunday's final round on CBS, when compared to last year's viewership. Thursday and Friday rounds of the Quail Hollow Championship will air on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday will be shown on CBS.

The Maturation of MJ

Jordan was a year into his role as an investor in and the managing member of basketball operations for the Charlotte Bobcats when he stepped onto the greens that day with Woods and Beck. With his professional basketball playing days long behind him, Jordan is often taking in 18 holes at a golf course somewhere -- his once-famous tongue wag now replaced by a cigar dangling from his mouth. But aside from the occasional photo of Jordan playing in a celebrity golf tournament, most of us don't get to see him on the course.

"It was one of the most amazing Wednesdays I've ever seen," Hougham said. "People were lining up at the driving range in the dark at about 6 a.m. I remember Michael getting a bigger round of ovation on the first tee than Tiger did. That's not going to happen in many places. You don't see two iconic sports figures together, up close and personal like that for four-and-a-half hours anywhere else, let alone a golf course. We were very lucky that happened here at Quail Hollow."

One would think that this round of golf on a beautiful spring day was a welcome reprieve for Jordan. He and his wife of 17 years, Juanita, had just filed for divorce a few months earlier. But the rich greens he was seeing at the Quail Hollow Club would pale in comparison to the green he would shell out later that year once his divorce became final. It's been reported that Mrs. Jordan walked away with $168 million, the highest divorce settlement in U.S. history.

But after a shock to both his pockets and his family life, the NBA legend appears to have bounced back.

Jordan's been making high-profile public appearances with his girlfriend, Cuban model Yvette Prieto, including last year's Kentucky Derby, her prominent seating with his family at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony last September, and this year's Super Bowl. She's also been spotted recently at a Bobcats game.

And speaking of the Bobcats, in case you haven't heard, Jordan owns them now, after purchasing majority control last month from Bob Johnson. About two-and-a-half years after giving his ex-wife a third of his fortune, Jordan managed to pull together the funds to pay $275 million for the Bobcats. Even though the franchise is projected to lose millions of dollars this year (as it has the last few), the team is in the playoffs for the first time ever.

Jordan, who has been courtside at just about every home game since becoming the top boss, is pretty much all smiles these days.

But he's had reasons to scoff amid recent allegations that he's partially to blame for Woods's playboy lifestyle. In the May issue of Vanity Fair, in a feature story titled "The Temptation of Tiger Woods," scenes are depicted of Woods and pals Jordan and Charles Barkley engaged in behavior unbecoming of a married man, let alone Woods's then-immaculate public persona. The article reads: "John Merchant [a former adviser] had warned Woods to avoid Jordan and Barkley, saying of Jordan, 'Stay away from that son of a bitch, because he doesn't have anything to offer to the fucking world in which he lives except playing basketball.' Merchant adds, 'Are they his black role models? You've got to be kidding me.'"

Skipper's End

We might not have ever witnessed Jordan and Woods on a Charlotte golf course together had it not been for William "Skipper" Beck. Leading up to the 2007 tournament, the Mercedes Benz dealership owner and fellow investor in the Bobcats asked Jordan if he would partner with him at the Pro-Am. Jordan said he would need to check his schedule but would get back to him. Days later, at a Bobcats home game, Jordan told Beck he was in. And that Woods was going to play with them.

While Beck was a well-known businessman throughout Charlotte, the day he spent walking the course with Jordan and Woods led to him being included in photos and news stories in publications and on TV broadcasts and Web sites around the country. Many of them proclaimed he was the luckiest man alive.

But things would get extremely unlucky for Beck over the next couple of years.

In May 2007, the same month that this golf tournament was being played, unbeknownst to the public, the FBI was contacted by a call girl who wanted to share information about a prostitution ring that was operating in Charlotte. The confidential source told investigators about Sallie Saxon (who would later be dubbed the "SouthPark Madam"), and how she had worked for Saxon and her Hush Hush escort service for a year and a half. The hooker-turned-informant had given investigators the smoking gun they'd needed since they had actually been slowly building a case since 2000.

In November 2007, the FBI arrested Saxon, her husband, and a third accomplice for operating the prostitution ring. Court documents revealed that for months, investigators had been going through the Saxons' trash. At one point, they uncovered a piece of paper that had "Britt 430" and "Skipper 300" written on it, which they believed to be the names of two clients and their appointment times. When this information was published in local media reports, speculation ran rampant about Charlotte's only well-known Skipper.

More than a year later, on Dec. 29, 2008, while most of us were enjoying the holidays and preparing for the new year, an affidavit for a warrant against Beck was being issued, charging him with a misdemeanor count of soliciting prostitution. According to the affidavit, Beck paid a prostitute $400 for sex on Oct. 19, 2007.

When Beck attended a hearing in February 2009, he admitted that he had paid for the prostitute as charged. Because he was a first-time offender, he was recommended for the Johns School program, a collaboration between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the District Attorney's Office. At this "school" held at the McLeod Center, a local substance abuse treatment facility, upon the district attorney's approval, a person charged with a first-time offense of solicitation can attend the five-session program and have his charges dropped.

"It's an educational program, so it's not sex therapy or treatment of any sort," said Shelley Alicea, criminal justice case manager for the McLeod Center. "It's based on cognitive behavioral therapy where the facilitator will help individuals think through consequences and risks before making decisions."

Alicea said that police officers come and speak during one of the sessions, as do representatives from the health department. After the health officials' lecture, they draw blood from each of the johns as part of the required HIV and syphilis testing. Alicea says that the range of attendees at the program is "extremely diverse."

After Beck completed the Johns School, prosecutors dismissed his charge in August and he released a written statement that read in part: "I take full responsibility for my actions, and am grateful for the support of my family. I have addressed the issue in a forthright manner with those that I love, and we look forward to moving on with our lives together."

Tragically, Beck wouldn't have long to try to put his life back together.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Beck was piloting his Cirrus SR-22 small-engine plane alone as he departed Rock Hill Airport. Less than two minutes after takeoff, in what appeared to be an attempt to return to the airport, Beck's plane crashed off the side of one of the runways, killing him instantly. A preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board showed no signs of engine failure, though a final report has not yet been released.

It's unfortunate that a man known for years for his business acumen and philanthropy is now most remembered for being part of a prostitution scandal and dying in a plane crash. That said, while we're happy that Tiger Woods is playing more golf -- and ecstatic that he'll be in Charlotte -- lessons can undoubtedly be learned from Beck's life and tragic end.


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